Director: Lucy Walker
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Going green has become a fad again in the United States. Since we produce 30 percent of the world’s solid waste, making our country the No. 1 garbage generator on the planet, it would be great if this newest marketing scheme could signal sincere progress, but let’s just say I’m not holding my breath. One country that isn’t even among the top 30 nations in solid-waste generation, but has a recycling industry that has become much more high profile is Brazil. This heightened interest can be traced directly to Vik Muniz, a fine-art photographer who likes to compose subjects out of mixed materials (for example, covering parts of photos with sugar and then rephotographing them) and who is the guiding force behind the project chronicled in Waste Land. Muniz embarked on a two-year project at Brazil’s Jardim Gramacho dump, the largest landfill in the world, where he chose several “pickers” to photograph and then created his mixed-media photos using materials from the dump itself. In the process, both he and his subjects were changed for the better.
Pickers do what almost no environmentalist would conceive of doing—they wait for dump trucks to deposit their loads, dig through the garbage for recyclable materials, and sell it by weight to recycling plants that send their trucks to the dump to haul the materials away. The job is, obviously, dirty and physically demanding. It can be dangerous—Tiao, a young, idealistic picker, had a dump truck hatch fall on him, breaking three limbs and causing gaping wounds that are now deep scars. The work can also be soul-wrenching—Suelem, a mother of two who has been picking at Gramacho since the age of 7, vomited when she found a dead baby among the garbage. Indeed, dead bodies aren’t all that unusual at Jardim Gramacho, which is surrounded by rival gangs that go to war periodically. The presence of vultures at Jardim Gramacho very graphically emphasizes that pickers work among mortal remains of all kinds. And yet these people prefer this work to the only other choices open to them—selling drugs or becoming prostitutes.
Muniz, who grew up poor in São Paulo, understands the great divide in Brazilian culture. “Some people who live here really do think they’re better than other people,” he says incredulously. For his part, he is looked at askance by the pickers, who can’t understand what he’s up to. He’s not exactly sure himself what possibilities will present themselves, but he grows used to the dump’s stench quickly and begins to make friends with some of the pickers who will become his photographic models.
Valter, the elder statesman of the pickers, has been working at Jardim Gramacho for nearly 28 years. His illiteracy kept him from finding other work, but he’s proud of the fact that he is helping the environment: “If you save just one can, 99 is not 100.” Many of the pickers try to keep this upbeat frame of mind about what they have to do to survive; Zumbi, who went to work at the dump to support his family after he lost his job, says he’d be proud if his son became a picker, but hastens to add that he would rather his son were a doctor who could care for the pickers or a lawyer who could represent their labor demands. Magda exclaims that the people on the bus she takes home sniff at the odor coming off her, but she reminds herself that she’ll shower when she gets home and sleep comfortably knowing she does honest work. Only Isis is frank about how much she hates working in the dump.
The most dynamic of the pickers is Tiao. He can read, and picked Machiavelli’s The Prince out of the garbage, which gave him the idea to organize the pickers union. Muniz, perhaps inspired by Tiao’s activism, decides to photograph him in imitation of David’s painting The Death of Marat, and we watch as Tiao and Zumbi carry a discarded bathtub out of the piles of garbage and Tiao, guided by a picture of the painting, assumes the pose of the slain Marat.
Once Muniz chooses the photos he wants, he projects them many times their original size onto the floor of what looks like an airplane hangar. He purchases recyclable materials from the pickers who he instructs, using a red penlight, where to place the objects to highlight the shadows and objects in each photo. Once they are done, he takes a large-format photo of the finished product. The photos will be auctioned in London, with all proceeds used however the pickers deem fit.
An interesting conversation takes place between Muniz and his wife Janaina Tschape in which she argues that if the pickers are exposed to the good life for the short time they will be in the world spotlight and then left again to their own devices, it would ruin them and leave them worse off than before. It’s an oft-voiced concern in fish-out-of-water scenarios, but such reservations tend to be self-serving and deterministic. The pickers aren’t generally ashamed of the work they do, but they aren’t deluded. They’ve been forced by necessity and lack of skills to do what they must to survive, and some of them are not doing very well at all. Many people like them would make a go of a better opportunity if only they could catch a break (think of where the middle-aged, unemployed, homely songstress Susan Boyle is now after finally getting a chance). After hearing this conversation, it did not surprise me to learn in the “where are they now” wrap at the end of the film that Suelem, the most troubled and vulnerable picker, had dropped off the map; the rest of the pickers had gained enough motivation and self-respect to better their lives through literacy and job-training programs, some made possible by the auction funds; and Muniz and his wife had divorced.
The community Muniz and documentarian Walker focus on is tight-knit because they must be. Their lives are hard, their status close to that of untouchables, and their options very limited. But their humanity is intact, and it is a huge pleasure to see them blossom when they go to an art museum for the first time in their lives to see their photos being displayed. Times are hard in America, too, and we’re likely to see more and more people dumpster-diving for food and recyclables they can sell. Let’s remember that we are all people with the potential to become our best selves if only others will see us and give us a chance. I’m very, very glad I got the chance to meet the pickers of Jardim Gramacho and a gifted and generous artist like Vik Muniz in this uplifting, informative, and humane film. It’s one of the year’s best.
Waste Land screens Sunday, October 10, 4:30 p.m., and Monday, October 11, 8:40 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
Previous CIFF coverage
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)
The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)